Thursday, January 3, 2008

Beer Review: Duchesse de Bourgogne

Well, I don't really know where to start on this one, so I'll quote the commercial description first:

"[This] is the traditional Flemish red ale. This refreshing ale is matured in oak casks; smooth with a rich texture and interplay of passion fruit, and chocolate, and a long, dry and acidic finish."

That's accurate, I guess, as far as it goes, but it's also terrifically inadequate. This might well be the best beer I've ever had. It's certainly in the top three.

Flemish ales (from Flan-diddly-anders!) are fermented with a (sometimes wild-inoculated, by leaving the mash or wort open to the air) mix of microorganisms, not just the usual brewer's yeast Saccharomyces cerevisae. The mix includes wild yeasts like Brettanomyces, as well as lactobacilli and maybe a few other things; I'm sure it varies from brewer to brewer and is probably usually a craft secret. Belgian sour ales are also fermented this way. For those not familiar, lactobacilli (lactose-fermenting bacteria), along with Candida yeasts, are responsible for the sour in sourdough as well.

Now, "sour" is a relative term. I've had some Belgian- and Flemish-style sours that made me pucker like sucking on a lemon (La Folie), and some that were just a bit tart (Rodenbach), and now this one, in which the mild tartness is just one factor in a veritable symphony of flavor. If I'd tasted this beer without knowing the style, I'm not even sure that "sour" is one of the characteristics I'd have noted as being dominant.

The best thing I can liken the flavor to is mincemeat pie. Now, hold on there! I know a lot of people don't like mincemeat pie; that's okay. Courtney doesn't like mincemeat pie either, and she loved this beer. A lot of the flavors combined in a way that really reminded me of mincemeat pie, with all sorts of subtleties like orange, chocolate, oak, anise, allspice, cloves, cherries, and a number of other things that I'd have to have another to pick out. This was almost certainly the most complex beer I've ever had, if nothing else. It was also moderately sweet: definitely not a quaffing sort of ale. The finish was long and dry, like the description says; it allowed the flavors to linger without becoming astringent or bitter in the least. Speaking of bitterness, there was virtually none; hops were definitely not emphasized in this beer.

The mouthfeel was fabulous, smooth and full and even a little rich without distracting from the flavors; there was only a little head on the pour, but I didn't miss it. I can't honestly remember the nose, because I'm just too overwhelmed by the taste.

In short, I can imagine there being people who don't like Duchesse, especially frugal people (it was $5.99 for small bottle, less than 12 ounces), and I can even imagine people who are largely neutral, if they don't have trained palates, but I can't really imagine anyone who does like it not being absolutely stunned.

Definitely an A+ beer. No question at all. Try it if you get the chance. Whole Foods carries it, at least in stores with a big beer selection; other than that, I don't know, but I'm sure you could find it if you were determined. It is apparently available in kegs, but the kegs cost around $180, so don't get your hopes up about finding it on draft at your local pub. The extremely nice and knowledgeable beer maven at our local Whole Foods, Stauss, tells me that it's better bottled anyway. Strange but true!

And as an addendum, I'm going to be trying to brew a Flemish red ale. I don't expect it to be in the same class as Duchesse de Bourgogne, obviously, but it's got me inspired.


Olson said...

If you liked the Duchesse, you might want to try the Rodenbach Grand Cru, I think it is called, a bar in the town I live in currently has BOTH on tap, the Grand Cru isn't as good but still work trying if you dug the Duchesse.

traveler said...

Your Whole Foods guy is nuts. No bottle of the Duchesse I've ever tasted came anywhere near the joy of it fresh on tap. Fortunately, I have a local pub that carries it on tap all the time.